How to Make a Cool Down Kit to Help Kids Manage Big Feelings
In therapy sessions with children, we work on developing a variety of coping skills to help kids regulate their big feelings so they can manage situations more effectively. These skills become part of the child’s Coping Skills Toolbox (a figurative container for all the therapy skills to go in). A Cool Down Kit, however, is an actual physical container that holds a variety of tangible items that kids can use to calm down or “stay cool” when they are having a challenging time. Any child, whether in therapy or not, can benefit from having a Cool Down Kit.
The main purpose of a Cool Down Kit is emotion regulation. Emotion regulation doesn’t mean getting rid of big feelings entirely. Rather, the goal is to reduce the intensity of strong feelings when those feelings are not very effective (i.e., down regulate). Take feeling “angry” for example. If you are just a little bit annoyed, you might rate your feeling a 1 or 2 on a feelings thermometer. If you are totally enraged, you would probably rate it a 9 or 10. The goal of a cool down kit isn’t to get that angry feeling to go all the way down to a 0, but to bring it back down to a more manageable range so you can use your coping skills to make good choices and feel better. In essence, a Cool Down Kit helps kids reduce the intensity of their strong feelings and express and manage their emotions in healthier ways.
Broadly speaking, coping skills are strategies your child can use to deal with strong feelings. Coping skills can be healthy (e.g., use your words) or unhealthy (e.g., hit sister). Obviously, we want to encourage the use of healthy coping skills, so a Cool Down Kit should contain items that align with healthy coping skills. There are five main coping categories that we can build our Cool Down Kit from:
- Relaxation – used to calm the body down (skills: deep breathing, PMR, grounding, or relaxing yoga poses like child’s pose, legs-up-the-wall pose, or Savasana)
- Distraction – used to stop perseverating or to manage feelings until your child can process it or to help them move past something they’ve already processed (crossword, sudoku, baking, random act of kindness, read, clean, write a story, play with pet, play a board game)
- Sensory – used to self-soothe with our five senses (a weighted blanket, aromatherapy, sand tray, gel tiles)
- Movement – used to safely get out energy/adrenalin, helps with the fight piece of the Fight-Flight-Freeze response (big physical movements such wall push-ups, run around outside of house, jumping jacks, sit ups/push-ups, trampoline and small physical movements such as squeezing a stress ball, playing with TheraPutty, pressing the palms of your hands together)
- Processing – used to help identify and label feelings, figuring out triggers (“What led me to feel this way?”), and talking through things that are bothering them (e.g., journaling, drawing, talking)
Of course, not all coping skills work for everyone or in every situation. For example, at home it may be perfectly helpful to relax by having a lie-down (Relaxation) or to distract yourself by watching an episode of Bluey (Distraction). However, going to the restroom to splash cold water on your face (Sensory), talking to the school counselor (Processing), or squeezing a stress ball (Movement) may be more appropriate at school. In the car, box breathing (Relaxation), playing the Alphabet Game (Distraction), water drawing with a Melissa & Doug Water Wow! pad (Distraction), pressing your palms together (Movement), or talking it out with Mom or Dad (Processing) may work. So, it’s helpful to learn a lot of different kinds of coping skills to help kids have a bigger toolbox to select from.
What kind of items should be in a Cool Down Kit?
If you want to make a Cool Down Kit for your child, look around the house for the following items or just head to the nearest Target. Here are some ideas for tangible items to include in a kit:
- Small Storage Container: storage cube, box, basket, shoebox
- Imagine Ink
- Journal & pen/pencil (to write about feelings)
- Melissa & Doug Mini Sketch Pad
- Crayola Silly Scents Colored Pencils
- Bubbles or a pinwheel (to help with slow, deep belly breathing)
- Mad Mattr Play Pack
- Crazy Aaron’s Thinking Putty
- Mermaid fabric (sequin) key chain or toy
- Index cards to create visual reminders
How many items should be in a Cool Down Kit?
There are a lot of coping strategies that can work. Place the top 3 or 4 most helpful ones for your child into your child’s container. Too many options can overwhelm a child. Present some options and then ask your child what tools they would like to include to help get them more invested in their kit and take personal ownership of it. Popular ideas include fidgets, something to squeeze, coloring page and coloring pencils, and lined paper for stories or journaling. Practice is important. You should try the skill with your child before you put the skill in there, so they know what it is and how to do it.
What to do for coping skills that aren’t tangible items?
Some coping skills – like taking a deep breath – are not physical items. In these cases, you can use props or you can make a visual reminder for the coping skill (check out these free printables). Using your imagination to take a mini-vacation can’t go in tool kit, but you can take an index card and write out the skill or your child can draw the mini-vacation. For deep breathing, you can use bubbles or trace your child’s hand for hand breathing. There is no limit but your creativity, so if you can imagine it, you can add it to a Cool Down Kit.
Where to keep your child’s Cool Down Kit?
The physical container can be picked up and carried through the house to have where you need it. You may also consider creating a safe Cool Down Corner, where your child can go when they need to use their coping skills to manage big feelings, and this would obviously be a great place to keep a Cool Down Kit. You may also consider making a smaller travel version of your child’s Cool Down Kit using a pencil box or toiletry bag for in the car or to put in their backpack at school.
I hope you and your child have a lot of fun building their Cool Down Kit together. Remember to include your child in deciding which tools to put in their kit and be sure to practice the skills with them beforehand. If you set a tone of enthusiasm and confidence in your child’s ability to learn to cool down (and be careful to never refer to using the Cool Down Kit as a punishment or consequence), you will have more success in motivating your child to use it willingly. Encourage your child to use their tools, but don’t force it. If you see them using their kit, be sure to acknowledge their effort with praise or tangible rewards (e.g., star chart). Once your child experiences how using a coping skill can help them feel better, it will start to become self-reinforcing to use their Cool Down Kit all on their own.
Dr. Rebecca Swenson is a licensed clinical psychologist and parent coach who works with children, adolescents, young adults, and families in Northern Michigan with anxiety, OCD, and eating disorders. If someone in your family is struggling with emotional/behavioral health issues, contact Dr. Swenson today to learn more about evidence-based treatments that can help.